Sweep Rowing, The Short Story



Coxing a Race (Êtes vous prêt?)

Pronounced eh-vew-prey, this was once one of the starting commands for shell racing worldwide. It means “Are you ready?” And would be followed by, “Partez!” The imperative command form of the verb “to leave.” It was like being told to “scoot.”[1]

That is the point of this chapter for you, the coxswain. I wish someone had made me ready back in the day. Instead I was constantly being ambushed by one revelation after another. I didn’t become a coxswain worth going out with for 2 or 3 years. Just for you I’d like to cut through all of the surprises and put you in a better position to do well as soon as you read this. If you were on the fence between sticking or quitting, I hope this bit of guidance will increase your comfort enough to hold you with your crew.

I’ve been a USRA certified coach for more than 23 years, and yet, coxing is still my favorite subject. I’ve seen only one other book[2] that addresses the coxswain directly so I’m glad to add something here. The coxswain is so often overlooked or considered merely a helmsman; and this is absurd because so much is riding upon his performance. The way he treats his boat and crew, the way he handles himself on the water, and the way his mastery can turn good strokes into great ones all make the difference between winning and losing.

 In general I’ve kept my personal reminiscences out of this book. I didn’t think a person should have to wade through my feckless memoirs in order to grasp something of value here. I cannot help, however, but tell you the story of four young men from St. John’s College in or about 1991.

It was the start of a new season. Some rowers from the past returned as veterans and, as always, there were a great bunch of people new to the sport; both rowers and coxswains. Among the men, we had four from the previous semester and four novices.

It stood to reason, or so it seemed, that we should row our new guys mixed in with the experienced so they would have a shorter, accelerated learning curve. So they all went out in an eight.

In the interest of fielding as many eights as possible, we didn’t require as many coxswains so, for the moment, I was riding in the launch with the coach (let’s call him Fred to protect the innocent). In the early weeks of the season it was most important to give the new coxswains a chance to learn their jobs. For a time I would have no boat to cox. For me, I was assisting, which meant that I carried Fred’s gas can and drove the Whaler for him.

Right away these new guys in the eight presented formidable challenges. Fred and I speculated about learning disabilities and the like; jokingly at first, then not so much. Everyday these guys would come down and display some new, different malfunction, sometimes astounding us with their inventiveness. Imagine a man beginning to back full slide while the other seven are rowing, just out of sheer confusion and mental panic.

Fred and I didn’t panic. It was early yet and different people were different. You had to allow for various kinds of learners. So time passed and we taught the crews all the drills we knew.

Some days were better than others but this eight, the men’s eight, had us well and truly lost. We’d drill them, they’d show some sign of improvement, and then they’d come down the next day with a whole new set of problems; problems whose origins we couldn’t comprehend.

Now Fred was one of the finest instructors of rowing I had ever known. He was articulate, patient, and kind, very slow to frustration, and never a hothead. So you can imagine my horror when it happened one day. It was the Wednesday before the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championships and I was driving the Whaler as usual. Fred would specify a drill and then we’d back away and observe from 20 meters.[3]

He was a little antsy that morning, first sitting at the helm with me, then standing at the stern, now lying flat upon the bow alternately coaching through the power megaphone and watching. We’d been hovering over the men’s eight for the better part of an hour now and, as far as I knew, it was a day like any other. He’d point at someone, look at me, and say, “That fuckin’ kid’s a menace.” And I’d get a laugh and sense that warmth you sometimes feel when your superior thinks of you closely enough to joke with you like an insider. I was in the inner circle now.

But he was not joking. Suddenly, with the launch moving about three-quarters power beneath him, Fred sprang to his feet. He snatched the power meg up from the deck and held it to his mouth. Out came nothing. He’d reached the edge of his known world. Fred hurled the megaphone down and the smashed bits of plastic and batteries danced all around the hull. Then he whipped the Ray Bans off his face, folded the temples, and cracked them in half, cursing as he threw the glasses into the sea.

Fred took a step toward me and I was paralyzed. He had my undivided attention when he said, “David,” and he never called me David, “In the morning, I will be taking out the experienced men in a four and you will be alone to do whatever you can with this bunch. And David,… I don’t care if you take ’em out and drown ’em.”

So that was Wednesday. At breakfast, I told the novice men of our new arrangement and they were pleased to have me. They’d heard good things. Since the race was on Saturday, I asked them if they’d go out with me that afternoon, twice on Thursday and Friday, and one last time at 5:30 am on Saturday before we loaded the boat on the trailer. They were thrilled. They just loved to “row.”

That afternoon I rowed them by pairs and made the most scrutinizing forensic analysis of my career. We started with the basics as though they’d never had a lesson before, and built the stroke up from scratch. I’d locate one thing that one man was doing wrong and I’d have the whole boat participate in a drill just for that one imperfection.

Each day we stayed out until someone had to go to class or until it got dark. We never even had a chance to practice a race or establish what a good time for us was. When we were alone, we only had a 500 meter creek to practice on. So we just focused on rowing technically proficient strokes. It was purely a study in rowing the racing shell; and these guys loved it that way.

Skipping to the end, Saturday came and we rowed our piece. Fred and the rest of our crew watched in awe as we rowed back from the finish line all four, full slide, on the square. When we arrived, we let ‘er run with the blades still square above the water, arms away, gunwales perfectly set. Then the runk of the collars feathering in their locks, and the smack of the spoons down on the water. We had won the silver.

I’ve taught more than 1,400 wonderful people how to row but today, twenty years later, I can tell you those men were Brauglio Agnese, John Lagasse, Nick Gazzolo, and David Clement. This was an example of what coxing can do which nothing else can. It was a fine hour. And I hope you have many like it.

It wasn’t merely the drills I chose or my own technical expertise. In large part it was also how I unified the five of us. I taught them how to carry a boat beautifully, how to set it in the water beautifully, how to warm up beautifully, and how to practice in that slow, measured way that was necessary for us to make progress. Rowing was not beyond them, they just needed to get it spoon-fed one small piece at a time; something they weren’t able to do while trying to keep up in an eight.[4]

From the outset I treated them like theirs was the fastest boat I would ever get into; and they grew into the model. They knew that they were first in my world for those three days and they wanted to honor that, so they listened and practiced more diligently than they had in the preceding three weeks. They proved that the opposite of exhaustion is wholeheartedness.

Coxing matters. It’s the most detailed level of teaching there is and people rise to the challenges leveled by an insightful coxswain. By the time we were done, Brauglio, John, Nick, and David understood that, stroke for stroke, racing was merely the search for an equal. Nothing more. Winning second place meant there was only one other boat truly their equal and it was 7 minutes of glory to confront it.

[1] Now playing: Through the Night (AvanarRemix), Markus Engel

[2] The Down and Dirty Guide to Coxing, George D. Kirschbaum, 2002

[3] Now playing: Beautiful People, Nina Sky

[4] Now playing: Aztec (Aly & Fila Remix), Neptune Project